A Safe Place for Amber

Nine-year-old Amber ran up to me as if I were her long-lost friend.  It was her first day at Dandelion Time, where she had come with her foster carer Jill. Amber had never seen me before. Yet she scarcely drew breath, frantic with energy, demonstrating her skill at cartwheels, pouring out a torrent of questions – about our hens and ducks, our donkeys and sheep, our workshops and gardens – hardly waiting for a reply.  I had a sense she wasn’t interested in in-depth answers.  She just wanted to dash on, to know the next bit, and the next …

Amber’s early years had been filled with change, devoid of stability. In a home of comings and goings she saw endless people, endlessly unknown, endlessly uncaring.  Her own mum had been traumatized in childhood. Throughout her life she had formed attachments with the wrong partners, always ending up in abusive relationships.  In all her time with her mother Amber had lived in a world of alcohol and substance abuse. Her biological father, a cocaine addict, often beat her mother while the child cowered in her arms. It ended only when he went to prison.

Another partner arrived, another ‘daddy’ for Amber.  Inevitably another alcoholic. This time the abuse was coercive, as he forced mum to ignore the child’s basic needs while he had his friends round. Suffering sustained neglect, Amber was eventually placed in long-term foster care.

She had been described by her mum as a ‘good baby’, who would go to anybody; it was clear in our sessions that underneath a gregarious exterior Amber had a deep-seated schema to be a ‘good girl’, because mum so frequently ‘went away’.  Certainly Amber had developed the ability to form fast and close attachments. This had been noted in her school, where she had been described as ‘controlling’ in her friendships. She had also formed unusually close bonds with teachers, in fear of losing them.  There were significant concerns about her vulnerability to coercion as she grew older.

Because we were concerned that Amber had such a fragile internal sense of safety, due to so much loss and transition in her life, we provided her with an immersive and sensorially rich experience at Dandelion. Here she could just ‘be’ rather than ‘be good at’. We decided to focus on the experiential, rather than the process of creating. Thus she would experience the gentle flow of change and not her habitual need to control, the urge which caused her such anxiety.

We walked through the woodlands, built fires, listened to birdsong, collected natural objects, groomed donkeys and held guineapigs; all to help her feel calm and contained and to help reduce her underlying anxiety, which kept her hypervigilant. It was important that she could begin to integrate all her senses, to make connections with the world around her. As she became more grounded, we noticed that Amber was far less reliant on Jill to validate her. She was finding the assurance that she was loved and accepted, just for being Amber and not for what Amber could do. In essence, she was beginning to feel safe.

We introduced gardening into our sessions…making rich, fine soil with our rhythmic composting machines, planting spring bulbs into the aromatic earth, tilled by her own hands. She might not see the fruition of the bulbs she planted under the trees, but she derived huge satisfaction that long after she had left Dandelion they would bloom each year. She had created a sense of place for them, something she had not found for herself in many years.

While she was with us Amber never talked about her experiences of the past. That was not to be her journey at Dandelion time. The past would be for another time; but like the little crocus bulbs she had planted, she had nurtured a sense of place within herself, of being in her own space –  finally a safe place, from which to stretch out those first tentative shoots of new growth.

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This is a composite case that is indicative of our work, names and images have been changed.